This is the kind of review that I’ve sat on for a while, as the Banner Saga has been out since January 14th and I’ve had it beaten for about a week now, but I wanted it to digest. The Banner Saga is one of those games that is done so well in some places that you want to immediately declare it the best game of the year, even if the year has just started, while other times there are little things that nag at you and tell you to keep your emotions under control. The reality of the Banner Saga is that the game released was The Banner Saga: Chapter 1 and that you are going to be playing a gorgeous tactical-RPG with an incredible visual style and tight combat system but you are going to be playing it for less than ten hours.
The Banner Saga is a tactical-style RPG much in the vein of Final Fantasy Tactics or Tactics Ogre. This means that you have to move your units across a grid one at a time and attack. Sometimes you get counter-attacked, depending on the unit you attacked and where it stands. Oh, there is also permadeath in this as well, so you are gonna lose some characters along the way (note: there is an easy mode to avoid this, kind of). There are a few different kinds of units at your disposal, depending on where you are in the game and who has joined up with your caravan.
The world that you inhabit in The Banner Saga is gorgeous, to say the least, taking cues from early Disney-style animation with each character beautifully rendered. The animation during the fighting sequences is beautiful and the sequences where you watch as your caravan traverses the wilds over breathtaking vistas are enough to satisfy just about anyone. The static figures during dialogue sequences are forgivable in a sense, but what isn’t is that there is only one fully-animated cutscene in the game and it gives you a glimpse of what could have been. Still, I spent more time hitting the screenshot button in Steam (F12) than in any other game I’ve played.
The story in The Banner Saga takes place in a fantasy world that is heavily-inspired by Viking history and lore and is inhabited by three main races; the first is of course Man, the second is the giant Varl and the third are the fearsome Dredge. The sun has disappeared in the sky and the darkness that is rolling in on the world is only accented by the Dredge spreading out, pillaging the realms of Man and Varl alike. You’ll find yourself controlling a cast of characters, both Man and Varl, leading two distinct caravans across a chaotic world. Rook and his daughter Alette wander in a group full of kinsmen and fighters to the West, accompanied by the lone Varl, Iver, while Hakon is transporting a Spearman who calls himself a King of Man to the East with a large group of Varl.
Their paths of course converge at some point while both are being pursued by the Dredge across the map, getting into both small- and large-scale battles along the way. They will also have to deal with encounters with other travelers, towns and even issues within their caravans as they travel, leading to tough decisions being made that will sometimes mean life-or-death for some characters. All of this happens while trying to keep your caravan’s morale up and supplies from dwindling, making resource management crucial to your success later on in the game.
The meat and potatoes of the game is going to be the combat uses the beloved tactical-style RPG system that we very rarely see anymore. At the beginning of each battle you are able to select the characters that will fight, as well as their order, then on the field you are able to place them strategically before the fighting begins. There are a ton of classes but sometimes the differences in the classes will be lost as you’ll know that you have Varls, basic assault unit Men, Archers and Menders. Varls come in different shapes, like Shieldbangers and Warriors, while Men have Spearmen, Landsmen (scout with both melee and ranged), Raiders (basic melee units) and a few others.
Each character has Strength, Armor and Willpower as their main stats. Strength is your basic HP while Armor allows you to deflect shots and take less damage, unless your armor itself is attacked. In battle you can choose to attack an enemy’s Strength or Armor, sometimes there will be a percentage shown for your attack on Strength if the Armor isn’t worn down, unless you are a powerful Varl and then it doesn’t really matter. Willpower is for adding extra power to attacks, to travel a little bit further or to use special attacks. It’s best to save it for when you really need it, as it is sometimes a godsend to be able to do seven damage instead of six against an enemy with seven Strength.
What’s amazing about this game is that there is very little to find wrong with it. If you are a fan of tactical RPGs this game will immediately endear itself to you and if you enjoy the Viking setting as well, well, you’ve found a game that you’ll fall in love with. The only problem with the game is that for a $25 game this is only “Chapter 1” (even though Steam doesn’t state as much) and that Chapter 1 will take you over five hours and less than ten. My playthrough took about six and a half hours and obviously it depends on the player and the decisions that they make along the way. There are some battles where running away will save more of your caravan than fighting, but fighting is fun and leveling up and gaining in-game currency known as “Renown” might help you more.
The game’s intense and moving final battle will leave you wanting more and to find out what happens to your ragtag caravan of Men and Varl only to leave you hanging at the end. With King, the makers of Candy Crush Saga, suing Stoic over the use of the word “Saga” apparently gumming up the works for the sequel it’s not certain how long we’ll have to wait. I know that wait will be worth it, but god damnit, I want Chapter 2 already.